Roman Catholic Church


Yesterday, December 8th, was the beginning of the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis. It was also a day of prayer and vigil for refugees, organised by the Churches’ Refugee Network and generously hosted by St Margaret’s Westminster. The Vigil was entitled 20,000 Welcomes – alluding both to the traditional Irish greeting, and to the 20,000 Syrian refugees that the UK government has decided to allow to resettle here. During the vigil, the following reading was read, and I offered the meditation that follows

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus comes to judge the world, and he doesn’t ask people how religious they were – at least not in the sense of going to church a lot, reading their Bible, even praying. Those whom Jesus praises are those who lived lives given to serving others – particularly those who were despised or ignored by everybody else. They visited prisoners, cared for the sick, looked after the people who were at the bottom of the heap. In fact, they did exactly the sort of things that Jesus did. I can’t imagine that any of them managed to do all that without having lives that were radically dependent on God: but the proof of all that was in lives which were lived in love for the world. They receive their reward through being the sort of people who didn’t look for it. They weren’t aware that they were serving Jesus when they helped people in trouble; they weren’t doing it in order to tot up spiritual points. They just did what needed doing.

These, along with providing burial for the dead, are six of the seven corporal (bodily and physical) acts of mercy, and they all flow from this parable:

To feed the hungry

To give drink to the thirsty

To clothe the naked

To shelter the homeless

To visit the sick

To visit the imprisoned

Today has begun the Roman Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy – a year of receiving, and also giving and living, the boundless mercy of God. As Pope Francis put it in his letter setting out his vision for the year

I have asked the Church in this Jubilee Year to rediscover the richness encompassed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us. Each time that one of the faithful personally performs one or more of these actions, he or she shall surely obtain the Jubilee Indulgence

Whether or not we are Roman Catholic, the Pope’s call should have resonance for us. We will connect most readily, many of us, with that encouragement to continue in the practice of mercy, and to encourage others to join with us in offering 20,000 welcomes. But we should also hear that other side of the Pope’s call – that we should be ready to receive the mercy of God in our own lives as well.

That action will take different forms for us according to our own traditions and spiritualities. For some the Pope’s call to renew the sacrament of confession will be a gateway to God’s grace and freedom; for others there will be other ways – the grace of God is confined only by our willingness or not to receive it. But receive it we must, if we are to have grace and mercy to share. The commitment to continue in the acts of mercy is demanding and sometimes draining. We have all met, and probably all sometimes been, those people who are still giving when they have nothing left to give – and we know that that is not sustainable, or healthy, or good.

We need to allow ourselves to receive acts of mercy as well as to give them, if we are to live out the spirit of the gospel reading. It is not for nothing that the corporal acts of mercy are linked with the spiritual acts – traditionally they are

To instruct the ignorant.

To counsel the doubtful.

To admonish sinners.

To bear wrongs patiently.

To forgive offences willingly.

To comfort the afflicted.

To pray for the living and the dead

The spiritual and the bodily do not live in separate compartments – they are dimensions of the whole human beings that we all are. In the giving and receiving which is the breathing in and out of the grace of God, may we be open doors of mercy in ourselves – doors that open in gratitude and thankfulness who come bringing gifts to us, and doors that open in hospitality and generosity to those who need our shelter, so that we are indeed able to offer 20,000, 50,000, any number of welcomes.

Karl Rahner, in 1974 (!) – some gems from The Shape of the Church to Come. Might it be coming now, in the UK?

The situation of Christians and the Church today is therefore one of transition from a people’s Church (Volkskirche), corresponding to the former homogeneous, secular society and culture, to  Church as that community of believers who critically disassociate themselves, in voter of a personal free decision in every case, from the current opinions and feelings of their social environment (23)

The smaller Christ’s flock becomes in the pluralism of modern society, so much the less can it afford the mentality of the ghetto or the sect, so much more open must it be to the outer world (30)

If in the immediate future we want to choose a capable parish priest or bishop … we ought to ask whether he [sic] has ever succeeded in getting a hearing form the ‘neopagans’ and made at least one or two of them into Christians (33)

… the fact must be accepted in teaching and in practice that in the one Church with her one Spirit there can and must be a variety of charisms whose ultimate harmony … is perceptible only to the one Lord of the Church and history; and he is not identical either with any sort of individual group or with the Church’s office-holders (36-7)

… we are going towards a future of the Church which is still hidden from us … neither a promised land nor a final catastrophe will soon take away from us the burden and the dignity of a continuing pilgrimage through history (45)

a declericalized Church [is] a Church in which the office-holders in joyous humility allow for the fact that the Spirit breathes where he will and that he has not arranged an exclusive and permanent tenancy with them (57)

the authority of office will be an authority of freedom … the Church is a declericalized Church in which the believers gladly concede to the office-holders in free obedience the special functions … which cannot be exercised by all at the same time … [The office-holder] will gain recognition for his office by being genuinely human and a Spirit-filled Christian (57-8)

If we are convinced that much injustice and tyranny prevail in a sinful world … we ought also really to be surprised how seldom the Church comes into conflict with those who hold power (62)

We talk too little about God in the Church … Only when the message of the living God is preached in the churches with all the power of the Spirit, will the impression disappear that the Church is merely an odd relic from the age of a society doomed to decline (87)

The Church of the future will be one built up from below (108)

When living Christian communities are formed by the Christians themselves, when they possess and attain a certain structure, solidity and permanence, they have just as much right as a territorial parish to be recognised as a basic element of the Church. Of course a basic community [has become] a local Church … only when it can really sustain the essential basic functions of the Church (organised proclamation of the gospel, administration of the sacraments, Christian charity and so on) (109)

(of bishops) The pastor should remain a pastor, but this certainly does not mean that he is to treat his flock as if they really were sheep (121)

 

 

It would appear that the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham is to continue to offer a home to those now joined or in process of joining the Ordinariate – while, presumably, also continuing to bar Anglican priests who are women from celebrating the eucharist there.

Perhaps here we begin to see what ‘Anglican patrimony’ means – not in the trivial sense that people use one building rather than another, but in the deep spiritual roots of Anglo-Catholicism. Of course priests and congregation of the Ordinariate will be completely welcome at the Roman Catholic Shrine: but there’s something about the particularly Anglican variant on high Catholic liturgy which is expressed par excellence in the Gothic brick of the just-about-Anglican Shrine.  It holds that delicate line of enjoying to the full all that the Western Catholic tradition has to offer, without being obliged to confirm to Roman liturgical norms. It has been a hugely fruitful place for generations of Anglo-Catholics, though it does face a river the other banks of which are much wider, and often appear much greener.

If the Ordinariate is a welcoming place for those who were torn between that Anglo-Catholic spirituality, and a sense of lack at being separated from Rome, then I can have no quarrel with it at all. But it does raise some interesting questions. Is the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham at some level a body which finds its inspiration and spirituality in the Anglican Shrine? If it is, then it may symbolise exactly the opportunity and the challenge the Ordinariate face in relating to (rest of) the Roman Catholic Church in England & Wales – symbolised if you like by its modern chapel.

I’m sure there are many entering the Ordinariate who will be equally at home in this more contemporary Catholic style, though as Tina Beattie said on the radio today, ‘I think they’ll find that the Roman Catholic Church is a lot less aesthetic in its worship than High Anglicanism.’

But there’s another and more difficult question for those who remain within the Church of England. It’s only natural for those still in charge of the Shrine to make it available to their friends who have now gone into the Ordinariate. But if that happens, they will be in the ironic position of welcoming one group with whom they are not in communion, while continuing to refuse hospitality to members of their own church. I do think this is slightly odd – and potentially spiritually dangerous. The Anglican Shrine has lived by being a border post between the Church of England and the wider Western Catholic tradition. If what I envisage comes to pass, it will perhaps have begun to shut itself off on one side – to face more and more exclusively towards Rome. In that case it might end up becoming, not a lively place where boundaries meet, but a by-way for those who remember how it once was: a rendezvous for otherwise parted friends.

I find Walsingham a very moving place, but I have decided not to go there with my parish as long as I have an ordained woman as a colleague; I don’t want to subject anyone else to the naked hostility one of my curates experienced (not from the clergy of the Shrine, I hasten to add, but from other visitors). I would love Our Lady of Walsingham to be a sign that Catholics of all sorts – Roman Catholics of the Ordinariate or of the dioceses, Anglicans both in favour of and opposed to women’s ordained ministry – could find a unity in prayer if nothing else. Sadly not as yet.

The Church of England’s General Synod is going to discuss this report from ARCIC at its next meeting, guided by reports from the Faith & Order Advisory Group (FOAG). About time, too, since it came out in 2005.
As you might expect, the commentary revolves the areas of divergence between the two churches, and several of the accompanying essays point out that the biblical and historical evidence is much more complex than the report suggests. All of which is true and important, but I’m still left a little disappointed that more is not made of the theological work the commission did in thinking about Mary ‘within the pattern of grace and hope’. Admittedly it’s quite a short section, and much of it is taken up with papal definitions concerning Mary’s conception and Assumption. But all the same, I thought it was the part of the report most to be welcomed, because it offered a way of thinking which could take us beyond the normal debates.
Thinking of Mary as seen from God’s future – eschatologically – could possibly release us from the historical and doctrinal issues which have hindered us, and allow Mary’s role to be officially recognised for what she really is in the life of many Christians – an indispensable part of their spirituality.
One of the FOAG essays points out that the report doesn’t really do justice to the heartfelt nature of Marian devotion in real life. If we were to focus on Mary as a pre-figuring of all our destinies, maybe there would be a way into academic discourse for that emotional content. Mary could be seen as the first and pre-eminent disciple, as the Mother of the Church, as the friend of the faithful – without having to justify each aspect from scripture. Her spiritual identity would not be founded so much in her historical life as in the trajectory of her felt presence within the Church.
That would of course have the corollary for Roman Catholics that the Marian dogmas would become unsustainable as essential teachings of the faith, if it is agreed that such teachings must have an integral relationship with Scripture. Marian teaching might have the same sort of place that confession has been given within Anglicanism: all can, none must, some should.
‘The pattern of hope and grace already foreshadowed in Mary will be fulfilled in the new creation in Christ when all the redeemed will participate in the full glory of the Lord’ (p54). Amen!

The Ordinariate is under way. To no-one’s great surprise, Fr. Keith Newton has been appointed Ordinary, and he and the other newly-minted (Roman) Catholic priests begin the process of inducting others to follow in their wake. Having just read Andrew Burnham’s interview in The Catholic Herald, I should think it must be quite a relief for them no longer to feel that they are held in tension between the Church of which they were part, and the Church which commanded their true loyalty. But what of those who remain?

As is often the way, it’s easier to speak the truth plainly when it no longer has personal impact: Fr. Newton is quoted by the BBC as saying: ‘”You can’t have a Church that believes in women bishops and doesn’t believe in women bishops.” Which is of course the point that Affirming Catholicism and others have been trying to make these many years. I do want those who disagree with the ordination of women to stay within the Church of England, if that’s how the Spirit is leading them. Others will feel called – and who am I to tell them they’re wrong? – to join the Ordinariate. But the Church which they are remaining within is either (as at present) one that does not ordain women as bishops, or (as I hope it will be) one that does. It can’t be both simultaneously.

The challenge for all Catholics, always, in whatever church they are, is to (in John Newman’s words)

…  hold in veneration,
For the love of Him alone,
Holy Church as His creation,
And her teachings are His own.

If the Church of England is part of the Catholic Church with authority to order its own life, then Catholic members of it are called to accept its teaching as the teaching of the Church, even if they disagree. If it isn’t – then I suppose there might be a prophetic ministry of trying to call the Church of England back to its true vocation as a part of the Western (i.e. Roman Catholic) Church. But that vocation cannot within integrity camouflage itself merely as opposition to women bishops; it’s about a wholesale change of direction, not a decision on one particular issue.